Review – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bridge Theatre, 13th July 2019

A Midsummer Night's DreamLast year the Bridge removed all its stalls seats for a gloriously exciting promenade production of Julius Caesar. This year, they’ve only gone and done it again – for Nicholas Hytner’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an old perennial favourite that can withstand the tests of time and whatever bright inventive ideas an innovative director can throw at it. Over the years, Dream has learned to stand on its own two feet; I’ve never yet seen a production that I didn’t like, because there’s always so much fun to be squeezed out from squabbling lovers, ruthless fairies and a starstruck weaver. It lends itself to updating too; I was just a bit too young to have seen the famous Peter Brook production, but that concept of aerial fairies has never quite gone away.

Gwendoline ChristieIt’s always a pleasure to write about a production that gives so much joy, happiness and sheer delight. Mr Hytner’s version is a dream of a Dream. Inventive, cheeky, bang up-to-date; playing with the storyline but still respectful of the original and its characters. Before the show started, I noted that the programme gave the factual, but enigmatic statement: “around 300 lines have been reassigned”. I hadn’t read any reviews in advance, so didn’t know what to expect; and if you’re in the same position, gentle reader, and don’t want a big surprise to be spoiled, I will completely understand if you now X me out at the corner of the page and read no more. Because the surprise is a thing of beauty.

David Moorst“I jest to Oberon”, Puck normally explains, in his introductory speech, to the unnamed fairy at the beginning of Act Two. Instead, “I serve Titania”, says this Puck, with an accent straight up from the Black Country, looking like a cross between the late lamented Rik from The Young Ones and Keith from The Prodigy. By serving Titania rather than Oberon, that means she’s going to play a trick on him, rather than the other way round. So it’s Oberon’s eyes who receive the Love-in-Idleness treatment, and who therefore becomes besotted with Bottom when he awakes. And how does that make Bottom feel? You’ll just have to see this production for yourself to find out.

Tessa Bonham Jones, Isis Hainsworth, Kit Young and Paul AdeyefaBunny Christie comes up trumps as usual with a superb set, full of trickery and surprises; a Perspex box for Hippolyta’s first appearance (she has been captured by Theseus at war, after all); an Athenian forest liberally sprinkled with brass bedsteads for the lovers’ sleep-out adventures; and a range of fabric trapezes for Puck and the fairies’ general use (see Para 1, Peter Brook reference.) Hermia and Helena appear in monastic grey, in contrast with their suitors’ sharp suits; but no one’s as splendidly clad as Theseus/Oberon, which strangely adds to his slight fragility and insecurity. Grant Olding’s original music is both haunting and happy; and if ever there was an award for the Best Ever Use of Johnny Nash in a West End Play – this is your winner.

Gwendoline Christie as TitaniaThere’s the always thorny decision to be taken when it’s a promenade production; do you stand or do you sit? At two hours forty minutes, plus the interval, depending on your level of fitness, it can take it out on both the feet and the back. And there will always be moments when you’re simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you just won’t see what everyone else sees. I know that Hippolyta did a great visual reaction in the first scene from the guffaws from the audience; but another of the characters was right in my way so I’ve no idea what she actually did. But for every naff moment like that, there’s the chance of a golden moment; we were right there when Helena was spoiling for a fight against Hermia, and when Oberon was going to get it on with Bottom; and Snug and I exchanged thumbs ups when Pyramus and Thisbe was chosen as the entertainment for the Duke’s nuptials. The best seated position is almost certainly the front row of Gallery One; but, despite all its complications, you can’t beat the thrill of being up close and personal with the cast in the pit. And the party end to the show is by far best enjoyed by the promenaders. Those in the seats looked on like they’d been left out of the invitations, whilst we were chucking enormous moon balls at each other and boogying with Puck and Demetrius.

Hammed AnimashaunWhilst there are serious aspects to the play – Egeus, after all, is preparing to have his daughter killed if she does not bend to his will as to whom she should marry, and Theseus is on his side in this matter – this production concentrates unashamedly on the humour. Not only from the role-reversals of Oberon and Titania, but also with a beautiful mesh of modern-day asides alongside the Elizabethan text. Seeking a calendar, Bottom borrows a mobile phone off a member of the audience (and you can guess how well that can go down). Theseus and Hippolyta critique the mechanicals with a modern twist; the preferment of Pyramus and Thisbe is shown in X-Factor terms; oh, yes, and there’s that Johnny Nash moment, as well as Beyoncé and Dizzee Rascal. Not like the Athens I’ve visited at all.

Felicity Montagu and Hammed AnimashaunAlthough it is very much an ensemble piece there are a number of absolute stand-out performances. Oliver Chris is a very majestic Theseus who adores the sound of his own stentorian voice; the kind of authority figure who doesn’t walk, he sweeps; yet he retains a slight air of doubt, perfectly seen when Theseus talks to Bottom in Act Five and wonders if he remembered him from some vague encounter…? Gwendoline Christie is superb as the statuesque, no-nonsense Hippolyta and a most mischievous Titania. David Moorst is a fantastically agile and attitude-filled Puck; not one of the usual cutesy fairy characters, you could easily imagine this one beating you up behind the bikesheds if you got in his way. Perhaps funniest and most endearing of all, Hammed Animashaun is unbeatable as Bottom; a big kid who’ll sulk his way into the best parts, with a fantastic, larger-than-life chuckle and a huge heart to spread the positive energy of this play.

Kit Young and Isis HainsworthIsis Hainsworth and Tessa Bonham Jones are excellent as Hermia and Helena, Miss Jones taking every opportunity to mine the humour out of the character, and Miss Hainsworth feisty and fighty; as their suitors Paul Adeyefa and Kit Young make an enjoyable double act as the brash Demetrius and Lysander. In another sex change, Felicity Montagu turns in a brilliant comic performance as Mistress Quince, and all the other rude mechanicals make for a dream team of comedy; far and away the funniest portrayal of Pyramus and Thisbe (plus its rehearsals) that I’ve ever seen. And the supplementary fairies are all beautifully played with their face sparkles and acrobatic antics; butter wouldn’t melt when they’re in the sky, then they come down to earth and are – shall we say – delightfully human in their provision of comfort to Bottom the Ass.

Chipo KureyaPurists will be aghast. But the rest of us will absolutely love it. It’s playing at the Bridge right up until the end of August. That’s three shows this year that I’ve wanted to see again before we reached the interval; Company, Man of La Mancha, and now Midsummer Night’s Dream. So, how can I fit in another visit…?

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Young Marx, Bridge Theatre, 19th November 2017

Young MarxFirst of all, a great big stagey welcome to the Bridge Theatre, a new venture on the south side of the Thames, a few minutes from Tower Bridge, opposite the Tower of London, along from HMS Belfast. I don’t think there’s any other theatre with such a selection of iconic views from its front door. Inside, there’s a wide bar/reception area that leads to the circle and galleries, and stairs down to the stalls. Inside it’s very comfortable, with a great rake and terrific sightlines, as the rows are slightly staggered so that you don’t have someone else’s big head right in your line of vision. Our interval glass of Minervois was exceptionally tasty; my only criticism is that the box office was closed at the end of the show, even though it’s an extension of the bar area, where people were still working. There were at least four people, maybe more (including myself) who hung around waiting for someone to come so that we could buy a copy of the playscript (and after all, it’s not until after the show that you really know whether you want to buy a copy or not) – but alas no one appeared. That was at least £40 worth of sales they missed out on. Still, what a great theatre!

YM6Its inaugural production is Young Marx, from the pen of Richard Bean (who seems to be unstoppable with his writing at the moment) in collaboration with Clive Coleman. Yes, even that towering, intimidating, bewhiskered old commie Karl Marx was once a young roister-doister. Penniless and thoroughly amoral, he steals from his wife to get money from the pawnbrokers, sleeps with the maid and then passes her child off as someone else’s, hides from his creditors, and from the law; even causes a fight in the library. He’s an appalling procrastinator; his pal Engels begs him to knuckle down and write his Magnum Opus that will change the lives of working people for ever more; but he’d sooner go out and get drunk. The play lets us into his chaotic life; his relationship with his wife (not good); with Engels (very good); and with his children (extremely good). It emerges that there is a spy in the midst of their political gatherings, but who is it?

YM3To be honest, we don’t particularly care, as the play is much more character-driven than plot-driven, and all the better for it, I feel. Mark Thompson’s gloomy revolving set provides a strong evocation of the poverty-stricken streets of London, and the Marx’s spartan apartment; and contrasts with Grant Olding’s rock-style incidental music, which deliberately clashes anachronistically with the 19th century story, startling and unsettling the audience with its constant interruptions. Messrs Bean and Coleman provide Marx with a couple of farcical fight and flight scenes, just to create a larger than life sense and to distance the story from reality a little bit more – even though almost everything that takes place in the play did actually happen for real. It must be said, that first fight scene was clumsy and ineffective; Mrs Chrisparkle feared she was going to be in for a very tedious afternoon. But she needn’t have worried. Everything else afterwards worked well; and the second fight scene, in the library, is simply hilarious and superbly executed.

YM2Rory Kinnear is perfect casting as Marx. He has that knowing air; that look that weighs up the difference between the sensible and the mischievous but will always go for the mischievous, just because he can. Switching effortlessly between faux-sincerity and childish naughtiness, he manages to keep one step ahead of the law but not necessarily ahead of his wife. He has brilliant comic timing; his scenes with the excellent Laura Elphinstone as Nym, where he’s having to cover up his infidelities, are a joy. Oliver Chris’ Engels is another superb performance, bright, polite and cheery, full of decency to compare with his pal’s lack of it. Nancy Carroll, whom we last saw as the delightfully naughty Maggie in Woyzeck, gives a great portrayal of his long-suffering wife Jenny, dispensing kindness to all and sundry apart from her wretched husband. Tony Jayawardena, hilarious as Mr Bhamra in Bend it Like Beckham, again shows his fantastic ability to get the best humour from throwaway lines as Doc Schmidt. If you think the receptionists at your GP can be occasionally indiscreet when blurting out your symptoms to a full waiting room, just be grateful you don’t have Schmidt treating your venereal disease.

YM4I also really enjoyed the performance of Eben Figueiredo as the servile and over-enthusiastic Konrad Schramm. Mr Figueiredo was one of the few good things about Chichester’s Pitcairn a few years ago, so it’s good to see him in a show worth his talent! And the always entertaining Miltos Yerolemou is on top form as the grumpy French revolutionary, Emmanuel Barthelemy, with his constant translation issues. In the performance we saw, Marx’s children, Qui Qui and Fawksey, were played by Matilda Shapland and Logan Clark and a jolly fine job they did of it too. But the entire cast works extremely well together as a very fluid and entertaining ensemble.

YM1The whole thing is played for laughs from the start to the finish. Serious students of political ideology need not apply. But if you like to see Marx hiding from his enemies in a cupboard or on the roof, or witness Marx and Engels nick a gate from a park and then pee up a wall together like naughty schoolboys, you’re on to a winner. It runs at the Bridge Theatre until 31st December. Good fun, highly entertaining – and a lovely new theatre to explore!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Great Britain, Lyttelton Theatre at the National, 7th July 2014

Great BritainIf ever there was an award for an ironic title, this would have to be a contender. A satire on almost everything that’s wrong with the media in this country, and by extension, everything that’s wrong with the country too. From the very gifted pen of Richard Bean, this is not as laugh-out-loud funny as his One Man Two Guvnors (although few things are), nor is it as richly written as his The Big Fellah (although, again, few things are). But comparisons are odious (and no doubt I’ll make a few more odious comparisons when we see his “Pitcairn” in Chichester later in the year) and this is a very funny, very well performed but very nasty look at the reprehensible goings-on at “The Free Press”, a tabloid rag that got into phone hacking in a big way (this ringing any bells with anyone?)

Billie PiperProbably the most fascinating thing about the production is the secrecy with which it was prepared and rehearsed. The day after the result of the Rebekah Brooks/Andy Coulson trial the National Theatre popped up with a tweet to say that the play would have its first performance on the following Monday. That must be one of the best kept production secrets ever! No doubt, if the play had gone ahead whilst the trial was still continuing it may well have been in contempt of court. Its appearance in the schedules was so sudden that, even as at 7th July, one week after that first performance, programmes had still not been printed yet. We just had the free cast lists to take home with us.

Aaron NeilThe staging is relatively simple with the main set being the offices of the Free Press, but with screens frequently criss-crossing the stage with newspaper headlines projected on them to create other acting areas. The headlines serve to keep the story moving at a fast pace but also have a Brechtian effect of telling you what the scene would be about before it actually happened. Many of the headlines were funny – but I got the feeling that the production slightly over-relied on them. The Daily Wail (sic) “Immigrants do something detrimental to society” headlines started off as funny but went on a bit long – we got the picture. Grant Olding’s music cunningly works to increase tension and suspense in certain scenes, very much like a movie soundtrack.

Harriet ThorpeWhy do I describe this play as nasty? Because it’s populated with vile people who get up to vile practices to serve only themselves and the lining of their own pocket. They may hide behind a veneer of giving the public what they want, but that is a mere excuse for their behaviour. As you might guess, I’m not a friend of the tabloid press. Nothing they write can be trusted, no sneakiness is too underhand for their modus operandi, and they wield too much political power. It doesn’t matter who says what in the run-up to a general election, the winning party will always be the one that the Sun backs. And I don’t believe the editorial team at the Sun spend days analysing all the parties’ manifesti, weighing the pros and the cons, seeking out independent verification of facts and statistics, to come up with a well-balanced political verdict. No. It will be the party with the most effective mutual back-scratching potential where it comes to the newspaper “getting away with it”.

Jo DockeryYou can laugh during the show as you recognise the devious press tactics – indeed you can relate them to real-life incidents that are already well documented – but on the whole it’s the laughter of recognition, of “ah yes, that’s very clever”, rather than laughter at something that’s intrinscally funny. Personally, I didn’t and couldn’t laugh at the despicably prejudiced insults of the Finance journo Ellerington towards the solicitor Wendy Klinkard, who happens to be of restricted growth (and thus played by an actress of similar height), inventive though they were. The destruction caused by the phone hacking in the cases of Stella, the dying anorexic topless model, and Kieron Mills, accused of murdering his twin daughters, have your heart in your mouth as you watch their ghastly impact unfold. Because Richard Bean is a brilliant writer and he has a cast of amazing actors, there is certainly a lot to laugh at; and then it sticks in your throat as you realise you need a sanity check to laugh at some of that material. Alan Ayckbourn is the master of that skill – with one tiny line or little plot twist he can reveal a lifetime’s insight. But in this play you laugh, and then you just feel dirty for having done so. I’m probably coming over as too PC – too Guardian reader and not sufficiently News of the World (for yes! The Free Press is the NOTW in thin disguise) but no minority section of the community is spared from ridicule to some degree. In my head, I’ve kind of moved on from the 70s.

Kiruna StamellMaybe that makes me not the ideal person to see this play. I come with my preconceived ideas about made-up headlines and journalistic malpractice, and I see on the stage precisely what I would have expected to see. I found myself asking whether for all its biting satire this play was actually telling us anything we didn’t already know. I suspected that, alongside all its cleverness, it didn’t. We know these journos are governed by greed. We know they trample over little people in order to secure their story. We know that the truth is a side issue where it comes to writing their copy. I’d already guessed that someone like Paige Britain, the news editor at the heart of the story, would have to be personally both very charismatic and completely without scruples in order to be successful at their job.

The story certainly does have a good momentum, as error leads to tragedy and stupidity grows into evil. Structurally I felt that the play started as a fantasy on how to edit a newspaper at gutter level, but as it and its editorial team sink deeper and deeper into the mire, by the time Act Two comes along it’s no longer fantasy – it’s real. The play is a full-on parody of the News of the World’s demise, and you can recognise the real life equivalents in the fictional characters and plot development. For every “is your vicar on Gaydar” story there’s an allusion to a Milly Dowler or a Madeleine McCann which makes for uncomfortable watching that’s hard to laugh at. But the journalists are intent on their practice and so blunder on ruthlessly with their usual self-confidence. Actually there is a nice throwaway scene where one of the team suggests Jimmy Savile is a paedophile and the others all dismiss it as arrant nonsense, showing that even within a team of big-headed callous reprobates, they don’t know everything.

Oliver ChrisOn the plus side, I liked how the play shows quite how cap-in-hand senior politicians – Prime Ministers even – might behave with editors and proprietors; especially if they’ve got something to hide. If the ex-IRA proprietor of the paper wants the PM to do something, he gets it. If he knows an awkward secret about him, he gets it even quicker. In this play, there’s no question as to who is the most powerful person in the country. There’s probably a lot of truth in the portrayal of a leading politician essentially being blackmailed by a paper if they’ve caught him with his pants down.

Robert GlenisterThe play is at its strongest when it shows just how thoroughly useless some people at the top can be. When the editor at the Free Press is replaced with new blood in the form of Virginia White, much to the dismay of most of the staff, she proves herself to be aloof and only interested in her own pet subjects and projects. Watching this play I had absolutely no doubt at all that Virginia White/Rebekah Brooks (even the hair is the same, and she’s married to a soap star) had no idea whatsoever that phone hacking was taking place. She was too stupid to see it under her nose – or too clever to look for it; either way she’s useless. Even more of an intelligence void, Police Commissioner Sully Kassam is the most inept leader imaginable, expressing every thought so badly, and making the worst possible decision every step of the way, so much so that some gifted youtuber creates rap videos of his best gaffes. He’s also the worst cover-up merchant you could imagine, trying to claim his civil partnership with Maurice is still strong whilst loudly taking calls from his lover Bryn at the same time. He couldn’t cover up a blister with Germolene. You do hear of people being promoted beyond their sphere of ability – here’s a man to whom it has happened de luxe. When you realise that the people at the top are frequently dopes, a lot of the crap that happens underneath them makes sense.

Rupert VansittartAs in “One Man Two Guvnors”, the central character constantly addresses the audience, commenting on the other characters and also confronting us with our prejudices and chucking them back in our faces. Billie Piper turns in a fantastic performance as the arch-manipulatrix Paige Britain, parking all sensibilities to one side so that she can get a scoop, not remotely concerned about the carnage in her wake, and doing it all so glamorously and provocatively, that it’s not remotely surprising she gets away with it. Personally I found the character utterly repellent, but Miss Piper carries you along with her, so that when she justifies her bad behaviour, you’re complicit in what she does. She’ll never go down without a fight, and she doesn’t care who with. Mr Bean’s vision of Great Britain is complete at the end when Paige is rewarded for her “distinguished” career by having a successful chat show on American TV. Can you think of any other tabloid editors who have enjoyed great success with a TV chat show?

William ChubbThe whole diverse cast give very entertaining and convincing performances. I particularly liked Robert Glenister as the offensively quick-witted and wide-boy-confident editor Wilson – Kelvin MacKenzie to a Tee. Jo Dockery is great as the butter-wouldn’t-melt Virginia White, horrified that the police are raiding the offices and shocked at her staff – rather like a posh mother dealing with the discovery her public school kids are playing truant. Her innocent cry, “what have we done?!” brings the house down. Oliver Chris is the essentially kind and no-nonsense Assistant Commissioner who gets drawn into Paige’s web beyond his ability to retain his integrity; Rupert Vansittart excellent as the flawed Tory leader with an open fly; and there’s great support from William Chubb, Kiruna Stamell and Harriet Thorpe. But the star for me was Aaron Neil as bungling Police Commissioner Kassam, who stole every scene he was in, and who created, with the help of Mr Bean’s splendid lines for him, one of the most genuinely stupid oafs I have ever seen in a play.

I liked this play – but not as much as I expected to or wanted to. It’s a very good play but it could have been a great one. Its subject matter is so grim that you feel you need to take a shower afterwards. Fortunately the cast play it with such zest and wit that it’s impossible not to enjoy to some extent – and your own acceptance of the tabloid press may well determine your own enjoyment level. Within a couple of days of tickets being on sale it had already secured its post NT run at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, just like “One Man” did. With such a hot potato as its story line, I predict a great success.

Review – One Man Two Guvnors, New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, 22nd October 2011

One Man Two GuvnorsWe booked this on 26th May because the word coming out of the National Theatre was that this was a smasheroony. Five months on and you don’t need me to tell you this is a fantastically funny show with some extraordinary feats of physical comedy. It already boasts a great reputation, and its West End transfer is assured of success. It’s not perfect – but so refreshingly laugh inducing that it doesn’t matter.

Written by Richard Bean (whose The Big Fellah I thought was the best new play of last year), it’s an adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 Commedia dell’Arte based “Servant of Two Masters”. It’s now set in Brighton in 1963, amongst a criminal underworld of petty thieves and villains getting bumped off. The plot is highly silly but highly entertaining, totally incredible and so enjoyable that you’re completely happy to suspend all reasonable disbelief. It’s a script full of character, chock full with hilarious happenings and good jokes, and I reckon it deserves to earn Mr Bean enough to retire on (although let’s hope he doesn’t).

James CordenJames Corden’s central performance is astonishingly athletic for a big chap. He plays Francis Hensall, who blunders his way into working for two guvnors who must remain a secret from each other; but of course he confuses their jobs and this leads him up all sorts of farcical garden paths. With terrific comic timing, and a super rapport with the audience whom he both takes into his confidence but also hoodwinks too, he’s simply a joy to watch. At times he appears to come out of character and address the audience directly as himself, in a manner I haven’t seen since the good old days of Eric Sykes and Jimmy Edwards in Big Bad Mouse (if you go back that far). This is very nicely subversive of standard theatrical practice, and feels very refreshing.

Oliver ChrisThe final scene before the interval will probably go down in history as one of the most hilarious ever seen on stage. Suffice it to say, not everything is at seems, but it culminates in one of the most astonishing coups de theatre you’re ever likely to witness. Of the three apparent interactions with members of the audience, throughout the whole play, I’m pretty sure only one is 100% genuine, If You Get My Drift. But it’s all carried off with amazing aplomb, that you only admire James Corden’s performance the more for it.

Daniel RigbyHe has excellent support from a gifted company of comic actors. Oliver Chris is excellent as one of his guvnors, Stanley, an ineffectual toff using posh expletives but who can be a thug when he wants. I also loved the performance of Daniel Rigby as Alan, the wannabe actor fiancé of Claire Lams’ Pauline, the thick daughter of local gangland boss Charlie. Claire LamsHis pompous posing makes such an effective contrast with the cockney vagabonds around him, and her innocent stupidity is another great comic element. And then you have the scene stealing performance of Tom Edden as Alfie, the ancient waiter, whose hands seem to have become detached from his arms and whose entire physical presence is a ridiculous delight. If you thought Julie Walters’ “two soups” waitress was past it, you’ve seen nothing yet!

Tom EddenTo be honest, the whole cast puts heart and soul into it and there isn’t a weak link. On the matinee performance we saw, Fred Ridgeway, as Charlie, seemed to corpse in almost every scene, so that when other actors came on stage to join in they tended to be thrown of course by his apparent inability to stay calm! Naturally, this only added to the general hilarity.

Fred RidgewayMy only gripe – and it’s minor – is that the music that runs through the show slightly puts the brakes on the activity. The performance starts with the (very enjoyable) skiffle group doing four songs, concert style. Whilst I appreciate it can take a while for everyone to settle down (and it takes an inordinate amount of time at the Alex in Birmingham to get from street to seat) I did feel it was too much. When the fourth song started I asked Mrs Chrisparkle if she thought the show was ever going to get going. The group also sings while the staging is getting changed between scenes. Sometimes, cast members join the group for eccentric solos, which is very funny, but I still felt it made the whole thing a little less fluid than it could be. Very minor gripe though.

This is definitely, as they used to say, going to run and run. A top notch comedy performed by a dream team. I don’t envy the producers’ problem of recasting once this lot have had enough.